Thursday, January 7, 2010

Nonverbal Communication

Portrateines Walliser Bauern 1910--Ernest-Bieler-1863-1948 I was driving back from having lunch with my husband yesterday when I saw a little tableau playing out on the side of the road. Well, the road was actually a major highway and I was driving 74 (not 75 because I never go more than 9 miles over the speed limit), so my impression of the scene was a split-second one.

There were several construction workers standing at the bottom of an incline with their arms folded. There was another man who appeared to be a foreman. A furious foreman. He made chopping, angry motions with one hand before waving it around in the air. His mouth was open wide as if he were yelling. He stood stiffly and every muscle looked tensed. The person who seemed to be the object of the fury was another construction worker with slumping shoulders and head hung low as he shifted from foot to foot.

Uh-oh. Someone screwed up. And I whizzed by in another couple of seconds.

I’m not one who does well with nonverbal cues in conversation. I frequently puzzle over conversations after they’re over—thinking that I missed something. But with my writing I’ve learned to concoct social cues that help power my scene.

Can your reader tell what you’re characters are feeling by their actions?

Body language can be really useful when you’re writing. Does a character grit their teeth when their mother in law corrects them? Smile with their mouths but not with their eyes? Bite their fingernails while waiting in the dentist’s office?Do they avoid eye contact when a parent is asking them questions? You can also use their tone of voice (strained? wavering?) to help show their reactions to events.

Nonverbal cues are great ways to communicate emotions to your reader. They also fit the “show, don’t tell” requirement that editors look for in manuscripts. One upside of show, don’t tell is that the reader is a little more engaged in the passage—they’re reading clues to the character’s emotions instead of having them labeled and spoon-fed to them. It’s a more active process.

I sometimes like using nonverbal communication that sends a mixed message just to shake things up a little bit. The meek woman with the strong handshake. Or maybe the character pretends not to see an outstretched hand. Is the character snubbing the protagonist? Or is he worried about catching germs during flu season?

I’ve found it useful to practice nonverbal skills. One way is by muting the television and watching actors (who are gifted in vividly putting emotions across) as they fret and strut their way across the stage. Soap operas are especially good at this. Lots of violent emotions on soap operas…as well as Deep Thought. Overacted sometimes, but that’s all the better!

Another exercise I’ve found useful is people watching. Lots of writers go to shopping malls to watch people and get character ideas. I’ll go to coffee shops usually, since malls aren’t a favorite of mine. But while you’re people-watching, you can focus in on people whose conversations you can’t overhear. I try to guess what they’re talking about by their demeanor. Is it a job interview? (I see lots of those in coffeehouses.) Is it a couple having an argument? (I also see a fair number of those.) Someone dominating a conversation as the other person gets irritated?

Do you enjoy using nonverbal communication? Is it an easy technique for you, or a hard one?

Hope you'll pop by Mystery Lover's Kitchen this morning. I have a special guest, Laura Childs, who writes several mystery series for Penguin. She's sharing her recipe for Eggs Benedict and discussing her latest release!

Mystery Lovers' Kitchen had a nice mention in the LA Times on Tuesday: